“Has America ever done anything right?”
My friend was clearly annoyed. We had been getting together every week to talk about our lives and to pray. More times than not, as we talked my friend would raise a concern that seemed to me to be a result of the political process, and I would note the difference between what the Bible clearly (to me, anyway) teaches and what those with political power actually do. On that day I exceeded his limit for tolerance, and our weekly meetings ceased soon thereafter.
I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed in comments and private e-mails about this blog, so I’d like to answer my friend’s question. If I were merely to give the bottom-line answer, which is yes, I think my friend would be satisfied. In fact, far from disparaging America, I think I have a higher view of America than my critics do. Unfortunately, that high view not only almost led me to title this post “Why I Am Not an American” but will probably leave my critics no less disgruntled after I explain it. But here goes.
C. S. Lewis once wrote disparagingly of what he called verbicide, the practice of robbing words of their meanings through inappropriate use. The best-known current example of verbicide is awesome, which used to refer to objects or actions that demonstrated such amazing power that they left observers unable to speak or act. Today advancing up a level in a video game is an “awesome” accomplishment, and there is no word left to describe those things that would have been called awesome before.
The same thing has happened to America. America used to be the word for the idea that individuals were more important than collectives, that there was no collective apart from the individuals who made it up.
Today the term refers primarily to subjects of the government that exercises a monopoly of force over a given territory. An “American” can be a murderer, a rapist, a child molester, a Klansman, a lobbyist, a Communist—you name it. It’s as though the dirt under one’s birthplace makes one an American. If that’s the case, what’s to be proud of about being an American? Newborns don’t choose the dirt under their beds, let alone improve its quality. We know what an American’s passport looks like, but we know precious little about the person’s character.
Dirt has nothing to do with my definition of America. My high regard for America comes from the words of the most familiar American document, the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
That is the America that has done much good, the America known as a good neighbor and a welcoming host. What’s not to like about people who view me as having an unalienable right to live, own property, and go and do what I want?
Unfortunately, by that definition I am not an American (and neither are many of my critics, probably including my friend).
My first disagreement with America is over “self-evident truths.” In purely practical terms, if these truths were self-evident, nearly everyone would believe them. The closest I can get to self-evident truths are along the lines of “putting your hand in a fire will get it burned”; few mentally competent adults would disagree, and indeed, the word fire carries with it the idea that whatever gets into fire gets burned. By contrast, the idea that people are in some sense equals is not shared by most people, as anyone who has suffered from conquest, police brutality, or racism can attest. Slavery, the institution by which one group entitles itself to the fruits of others’ labor in one form or another, has been universal human society, even in that produced by the writers of the Declaration. So unless there is no contradiction to America’s “self-evident” truths being a minority view even among mentally competent adults, Americanism is based on at least one untruth.
The Founders’ use of “self-evident” is, as far as I can see, their way of putting the ultimate stamp of authority on their declaration of their rights. Yet a Christian’s ultimate stamp of athority comes from God through the Bible. That I am no more worthy of life than a “spastic,” an “idiot,” or a “vegetable” and no less worthy than those stronger and smarter than I am is not self-evident, but I can assert it knowing that the Bible will back me up. So right away, my branches intertwine with those of Americans, but my roots are on the other side of an unfordable river.
My next disagreement is with the idea that people are “endowed by their creator with . . . unalienable rights.” By the time I understand the Gospel enough to call myself a Christian, I have admitted that I am a sinner and that the just recompense for my sins is damnation. Whatever rights I had to life, liberty, and property are gone because of my sin. So I never had any unalienable rights, and what rights I might have had have been alienated.
Yet the same Bible that shows me that I have no rights also forbids people from taking my life, liberty, or property unless I commit certain acts. So again, my branches intertwine with Americans’, but my roots don’t.
As I said, Americans make good neighbors. Anyone who leaves my body and property alone is a good neighbor, so even though I cannot call myself an American, I would love to live next door to Americans. And an American is by definition one who does those things right. So yes, America has done things right.
By now it should be clear that those who define America as the US government have a lower view of America than I do. It should also be clear that our government, the most immediate threat to our proerty and freedom, if not our lives, is not American. And to the degree that the government reflects the will of its subjects, we do not live with American neighbors.
When our neighbors say, “God bless America,” if God enters their thinking at all (I know atheists who say “Bless you” to people who sneeze, as well as the ususal spurious “O my God”), they are asking God to bless government policy. It seems to me that when a Christian says, “God bless America,” he should mean “May God show my neighbors all over the world the wonders of his common grace that brings prosperity wherever people leave their neighbors’ bodies and property alone and tell the truth.” More importantly, he should mean, “May God give Americans disciples’ rewards for the cups of cold water they have given to so many of God’s people: may he show them their errors so they become Jesus’ disciples.”
In that sense, then, and only in that sense, do I say it now: God bless America!